Culture : Tex-Mex Food Rules the Range in 200 Paris Restaurants : Got a hankering for some boeuf tacos? You'll have plenty of company in France's capital.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Vamonos, amigos, into the Paris night. Skip past those intimate, hallowed dining salons, where food is an art to be savored and critiqued. Ignore those crowded bistros, brasseries and cafes.

Instead, head for Cafe Pacifico, on the Left Bank, where the French diners are shooting seven brands of tequila. Follow the taco trail: Hungry patrons are scooping guacamole onto crisp tortilla chips at El Rancho, rolling fajitas at El Gringo, swigging margaritas and Dos Equis at the Mustang Cafe and tapping their toes to the mariachi bands at El Chihuahua.

Ay caramba ! Oh yes, at Ay! Caramba in the out-of-the-way 19th arrondissement , a seven-piece mariachi band, sans sombreros, is entertaining 180 diners as they peruse menus offering, among other things, cactus salad and tacos filled with boeuf, poulet or lardons (pork).

A raucous Tex-Mex invasion is under way in Paris.

Only 10 years ago, this city of 2 million, and metropolitan area of 8 million, had just two Mexican restaurants. Today, there are 200. And more are opening, at the rate of one every three weeks, despite a recession that has bitten into the revenues of all restaurants.

Last month Chi-Chi's, the American chain that has more than 200 restaurants worldwide, plunged into the French market. Rock music pulses from its new restaurant just down the street from the Napoleonic-era Paris Opera, and Chi-Chi's advertisements ask: "Que Pasa a l'Opera?" What's happening at the Opera?

In fact, Tex-Mex restaurants are flourishing "like tacos on a guacamole," according to the Paris daily Le Figaro, which clearly has a few things to learn about Tex-Mex cuisine.

Why the sudden passion for Mexican restaurants? The French and those who study the French offer a lot of reasons. The food, much adored though it may be by Americans, isn't one of them.

"It's not that they like Tex-Mex food, but they like the idea of it," explained Patricia Wells, food critic for the Paris-based International Herald Tribune and author of several books on the French and their cuisine.

"Like wearing jeans and baseball caps, it makes them feel American," added Wells, an American. "It's just like when some of us were young, we liked to feel French by eating cassoulet."

The Mexican restaurants especially appeal to young French professionals, known hereabouts as les gens branches --the fashionable people. Some find Mexico and its ancient culture especially exotic and interesting. For others, it is the throbbing party atmosphere of a Mexican restaurant that is so foreign and appealing.

Where the typical French restaurant is formal and quiet, with fresh white linen tablecloths and suited waiters, the Tex-Mex restaurants in Paris, like those in the United States, are rowdy and casual, with waiters in blue jeans, high-decibel rock music, Mexican and American bric-a-brac on the walls and no pretense whatsoever.

"I think people can feel a real escape in a place like this, thanks to its decor and a certain charged atmosphere," said Tom Estes, founder and owner of the 10-year-old Cafe Pacifico.

"People feel they can get some relief from their own ordinary lives here," added Estes, 49, a former Whittier high school English teacher who also owns Tex-Mex restaurants in Amsterdam and London. "These are the cosmopolitan people, people involved in the world and more open to new kinds of things."

It's no accident that most Tex-Mex restaurants in Paris battle constantly with neighbors annoyed by the noise levels. That party atmosphere is fueled nicely by tequila, served straight or in large pitchers of margaritas, which have become the aperitif of choice for the fast, hip French set. Nearly 15% of the sales in Estes' Mexican restaurants in Europe come from margaritas alone.

"The attraction for me is Dos Equis beer, tequila and margaritas," said Pierre Chauvin, 31, a doctor and a regular at La Perla, a tequila bar owned by Estes on the Left Bank. Chauvin said he often goes to Tex-Mex restaurants as well, "always full of hope that the food will be good, but I'm usually disappointed."

Of course, Tex-Mex restaurant owners have been forced to make adjustments for the French palate. For one thing, the French do not particularly like spicy food.

"You have to be careful about that," said Kimbando Luvuno, 34, a Zairian who is head chef at Cafe Pacifico. "We usually serve it on the side."

And then there are eating customs. Many Tex-Mex menus carry helpful directions on how to make fajitas and encouragement to eat them with the hands. Cafe Pacifico offers a taco that can be eaten with a knife and fork.

The French also eat bread with every meal, and breaking them of the habit is well-nigh impossible.

Over at Ay! Caramba, one of the largest restaurants in Paris, hardly a night goes by without at least one request for bread (it isn't available). But the patrons seem to forget the missing staple, especially after a few drinks. The restaurant has been open five years and, despite a slight drop in sales last year, it is full almost every night.

"People come here to party and forget everything else," said Nahum Beristain, one of the Ay! Caramba owners. "The French people can really open up."

Ay! Caramba is run by Beristain, 34, and Miguel Garcia, 37, who are both from Mexico. Their American wives do the books, and the pair also work as consultants, having helped launch more than 40 Mexican restaurants in France.

In the Ay! Caramba kitchen, the employees are all Sri Lankans, chosen because, Garcia's wife Amy explained, "they know how to follow recipes. French chefs follow the recipe at first and then start changing it two weeks later."

Beristain and Garcia use family recipes for their food, and they are sensitive to the suggestion, made by some French food critics, that Tex-Mex food is prepared with less care than the best of French cuisine.

"French cuisine is rich in quality, but Mexican is rich in variety," Beristain said. Added Garcia: "It's really not possible to compare the two."

Getting authentic Mexican ingredients is one of the biggest challenges. All flour tortillas and many of the spices must be imported, usually from Texas or Mexico. Obtaining fresh tomatillos is impossible, and Garcia said he wishes he could have fresh epazote (an herb) for his quesadillas.

The arrival of Tex-Mex restaurants also has been fueled by growing French interest in foreign and ethnic cuisines. The French are more adventuresome, and, in some ways, less picky eaters these days.

All manner of ethnic restaurants, from Indian to Japanese, have appeared in recent years, offering an occasional diversion from the steady diet of foie gras and heavenly French sauces.

So what do the grand chefs of Paris think about Tex-Mex? Not much. For the most part, they lump it together with all American fast food, which the French often call "industrial" food.

"We all live on the same planet, and the French are very willing to eat other foods," said Guy Savoy, whose restaurant, one of the gastronomic temples of Paris, offers meals at more than $100 a person, compared to about $35 for the average Mexican meal.

But Savoy said he would not dignify the popularity of Tex-Mex food by calling it a phenomenon.

"Its success is very isolated," he sniffed.

"I tried it once, on a visit to the United States," Savoy recalled. "It was amusing. I would say it is better than traditional fast food. But it's still fast food."

Among the elite, and older French people especially, the arrival of Tex-Mex, like the arrival of American fast food and television programs, is viewed with some disdain. But those barriers also are falling.

Last Thanksgiving, for the first time, dozens of French restaurants offered special dinners of roast turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. (A few chefs sent faxes to Patricia Wells, begging her to give them authentic recipes for pumpkin pie.)

Still, as Wells put it, "there remains a strong belief in France that nothing good--that you can put in your mouth--could ever come from America."

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